Winners!

A title like that doesn’t usually get my interest, but by odd serendipity I was called by a publicist for Eric Martin’s new novel and asked to speak for 5 minutes before a couple of his upcoming bookstore gigs to introduce the historical context of his book. OK, I agreed without reading the book or knowing anything about it. Probably a bad idea, but luckily I got away with it because this is a very interesting read.

Winners tells the story of Shane McCarthy, a 30-something guy in San Francisco during the dot-com boom. He’s on the periphery of the boom through his wife Lou who is an up-and-coming start-up entrepreneur, but Martin smartly shows how her ambition is destroying their marriage. Shane cleans chimneys, having taken over his father’s business; he is a son of the Sunset district, a lapsed Catholic Irish, one of four brothers.

I won’t go on too long about what happens in this book, because I think you’ll probably want to read it. It’s a quick and breezy read, but a page-turner for long stretches as the city we know” and the recent mass delusion that gripped it” set the stage for an achingly familiar human tale. Basketball is a running component of the story, not spectator professional basketball (esp. around here!) but street basketball, a game that has gone on for many years at a specific outdoor court, and the characters that play the game and share larger or smaller bits of their lives.

We live in an enormously segregated society. Even San Francisco feels that way most of the time. In Winners that segregation is carefully exposed and the cultural chasm it causes is traversed in halting and contradictory ways. This is where the book shines most brightly for me. Its frank treatment of racism as a structural fact of San Franciscan life, juxtaposed to the gentrifying tsunami of the dot-com boom, shows that Martin is willing to touch on something a lot deeper than the usual self-flattering puffery that young white men tend to write.

Also, I played street basketball as a young adolescent in Oakland, so a lot of the banter and camaraderie he captures so well in Winners came back to me. I had completely overlooked, in my ongoing curiosity and interest in the demise of public space, the public basketball court. It’s a place where (mostly) men of different races and ages can still cross boundaries of class, housing, and occupation, to pursue equality and acceptance through the controlled intensity of a no-holds-barred basketball game.

Or maybe they just want to kick some ass! That simple macho goal, which holds almost no interest for me anymore, nevertheless becomes an honorable way to connect, a way to earn and show respect, and I had frankly forgotten that. It was true in my youth, too, especially in the tortured and violent world of middle school physical education. I suffered my share of robbery and assault, but I staved off a great deal more by being something of a jock, a decent basketball and baseball player, and someone who could physically dish it out on a football line too, when I had to. I don’t know how many people sized me up through sports and then left me alone after that. Had I been wimpier, I think I’d have been more of a mark to even more of my schoolmates.

Anyway, basketball serves as a public, social arena in Winners. There is almost no sports talk per se, just how different lives intersect through the game on a public court. And, too, how distant and alienated the players mostly remain from one another. The disappearance of a young black guy who’d been a regular player for five years drives the plot. The things Shane learns about the guy, his family, his city, his own life, all unfold in that zany, inexplicable bubble that gripped the part of SF that was getting all the official attention back in 1998-2000. As such, it’s already a really good historical novel, because one of the hardest things to do is convey the texture of life at any given time. Martin has woven a tale that captures amazingly well what it actually felt like to live here during that time from the point of view of a “native” San Franciscan.

P.S. I’ll be appearing with Eric Martin on March 10, 7-8 p.m. at The Booksmith on Haight Street, and March 24, 7 p.m. at Vesuvio’s in North Beach.

All Sped Up!

Sorry to any regulars who are missing my posts. I am darn busy these days, suffering the normal plight of the modern urban guy who is wearing about 4 or 5 different hats. We’re painting on weekends at the new CounterPulse space (1310 Mission, and yes, we need volunteers and donations–hoo boy, do we ever!), after having an inspiring first-ever Community Introduction Night last Thursday. Friends are visiting from Brazil, had a lovely dinner party with old friends and new gathering to share some caipirinhas and Mona’s newly invented Leek-nigella risotto…
I felt pissed at good ol’ Jon Stewart and his Daily Show when they caved in so abjectly to the Iraqi election as a propaganda victory for Bush. Sheesh! Don’t they read anything?!? I guess they just watch tv. It should be obvious that there is no contradiction between a decent turnout in some parts of Iraq and a near-unanimous desire to expel the U.S. from that sorry place. People were voting as much to end the occupation as anything else. And it looks like they’ll end up with a Shia-dominated government that is committed to some kind of Islamic law… will the Negroponte death squads start assassinating the new government next month or the month after that?
I’m reading Jonathan Lethem’s Fortress of Solitude but will give a review later, plus about four other books. But my own writing is suffering. Haven’t been able to get undivided time to resume the writing on the next book. Transcribing interviews, writing short pieces for other magazines (Journal of Art & Protest, LiP, Capitalism Nature and Socialism–all maybe’s).
Anyway, I’m not suffering really, just kvetching. My life is weirdly good compared to the insanity of the world around me.

’68

Finished this book a week ago, called ’68 by Paco Ignacio Taibo II, translated by my pal Donald Nicholson-Smith. It’s a great read, rather short, very subjective in the best sense of it, and tells the compelling story of 1968 in Mexico City as the student movement erupted in the face of the one-party state.

We are all wondering these days about political movements, where they come from, why there isn’t more of one here in the U.S. with so many reasons to be actively in opposition.. I think it’s because we’re stumped. The loony right is riding high, the channels of communication (minus the internet and blogs like this) are completely univocal and do not reflect even in tiny ways the enormous dissatisfaction that is percolating at the base of this culture. People who are doing their best to survive AND create alternatives AND oppose the barbarism of the government are completely invisible, unless you are already connected to them and their actions. Kind of a chicken-and-egg problem to some extent.

It doesn’t seem likely that the old styles of organizing are going to get us anywhere in the current situation. But we just don’t know. So a lot of people keep campaigning on familiar grounds, whether they be anti-war efforts or labor solidarity actions, pro-choice demonstrations, etc. I am withdrawn from such efforts, in spite of feeling some pull to participate. I want to be part of a political opposition that has the initiative, that has a vision, that understands power in sophisticated ways. All of these defensive efforts make me feel weaker and stupider, not the assertive power one OUGHT to feel if engaged in meaningful political revolt.

Reading ’68 was not precisely inspiring, but it was illuminating. Here was a situation where political action really seemed futile. And yet, in the face of a dominating one-party state, a diverse movement began to appear on campuses around Mexico City, and soon were snowballing in ways no one could predict or control. Literally hundreds of thousands of students went on strike and were joined by people from many other sectors as it kept growing. Mass assemblies, wild factional splits, total confusion, and intense repression by the government did not stop it from growing, gaining strength, developing new tactics and spreading its message with no help from the mass media which was controlled by the state. In some ways it was similar to what occurred in eastern Europe 20 years later.

But in 1968, it was in the context of a global uprising in cultures as divergent as the U.S., China, Czechoslovakia, France and Mexico. I’ve read more about the other places so it was fun to get a close-up view of the events from the perspective of Mexico City. Taibo is now a successful novelist and his literary flair is part of the fun of this book. Finally the student strike was broken by the massacre of over 400 people at a big rally at Tlatelolco plaza, a slaughter denied by the government and never properly accounted for or documented. Many of the dead student bodies were quickly flown out by helicopter and reportedly dropped into the ocean in the Gulf of Mexico. This happened days before the 1968 Olympics began in Mexico City so a certain complicity by the rest of the world contributed to the silencing of the student movement there.

1968 is still a touchstone for many radicals, usually because of the general strike in France or the cultural revolution in China, but the movement in Mexico has its own important legacy too. The Zapatistas who emerged in 1994 surely have roots in 1968, and the slow collapse of the Partido Revolucionario Institutional can be traced back to the cultural currents unleashed during that time.

Where does that leave us today, in the one-party state known as the United States? No clearer on what to do or how to do it, that’s for sure. But maybe we can take heart from the knowledge that in conditions that were more dire than ours, with much less infrastructure of alternative communication or counter-awareness, a powerful movement broke out anyway and shook the foundations of that society. It’s useful to note, too, that things take longer than we want them to, in our impatient American instant-gratification minds. History unfolds at a pace that exceeds anyone’s control; we can’t know where it’s going to go or if we’ll even get there, but the things we do today often reverberate far down the road in time and space in ways we cannot know. Thousands of us here are engaged in changing the world with integrity and compassion. Perhaps someday people will look back on this time and note that it was the efforts we made that made it possible for the big changes they might make in a future era.